Chaos Theory: Confusing Diplomatic Means and Ends in Helsinki
In the weeks leading up to last Monday’s summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, observers from across the political spectrum on both sides of the Atlantic raised legitimate questions about President Trump’s justifications for holding such a meeting at all.
Set aside, for the moment, the disastrous unfolding of events in Helsinki in which the President of the United States of America publicly sided with a former-FSB intelligence chief over the well-established consensus conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.
It was never fully clear what President Trump hoped to accomplish in a bilateral meeting with the head of a hostile foreign adversary openly committed to playing global spoiler to the American-led, rules-based international order to begin with. Trump’s amorphous and shifting rationale for the meeting variously mentioned issues like Syria, Iran, Ukraine, Crimea, North Korea, and others. But no discernable, concrete agenda ever materialized or was communicated to the American people.
In normal administrations, these types of leadership summits typically occur with clear objectives in mind and only after substantial progress in staff and cabinet-level negotiations has taken place beforehand. Aside from a cursory trip to Moscow in late June by newly-installed National Security Advisor John Bolton, who just a year earlier had argued there was no point in talking with the Kremlin, however, no reporting indicated that any such groundwork had been laid.
In the event, no substantive, pre-negotiated breakthroughs on any of the highly-contentious and consequential issues at stake in the U.S. relationship with Russia were announced at the summit. During the joint press conference in Helsinki, Trump reported talking to Putin about a range of issues that touched on various aspects of U.S.-Russian relations, but what did the president really hope to achieve by talking to Putin about them? What were the deliverables supposed to have been? The declaration text, according to the Washington Post, was always intended by White House officials to be “short and generic.”
Why should the leader of a hostile foreign adversary who personally oversaw an attack on the integrity of American elections – a country actively waging an asymmetric campaign of hybrid warfare against American interests around the world – be rewarded with a summit-level meeting with the President of the United States?
In the days after Helsinki, Moscow has repeatedly claimed that “important verbal agreements” were reached between Trump and Putin, but neither side has offered any details. The Washington Post, summarized the final takeaway in the White House’s own vague terms:
Trump told lawmakers this week that he and Putin had made “significant progress toward addressing” key issues. U.S. officials have offered few specifics on what was decided on those subjects beyond what [White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders on Wednesday called “the beginning of a dialogue with Russia.”
The question “To what end?” was never satisfactorily answered before or after the meeting, though Trump appeared to provide a partial explanation at the actual event last Monday.
Seated next to the Russian leader at the opening of the summit, Trump opined that “Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.” Given the lack of any more-substantive pronouncements, the summit appears to have been designed personally by President Trump solely to advance that objective. On the flight home from Helsinki, the president reiterated the point in a tweet with an exclamation point for emphasis: “We must get along!” He added later that “Some people HATE the fact that I get along with President Putin of Russia.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings will eventually shed light on any fuller motivations Trump may have had for meeting one-on-one with the Russian leader who helped get him elected with no notetakers present for more than two hours in contravention of normal U.S. diplomatic protocol. Occam’s razor, as relates to explaining the body of Trump-Russia data presently available in the open-source record, is not President Trump just really liking Vladimir Putin to the point of imperiling his own presidency.
For now, though, it is important to point out that Trump’s formulation – a core component of what might be termed the Trump Doctrine – that a “good relationship” with Putin and Russia is a good thing, apparently in and of itself, flatly confuses means and ends in American foreign policy and undermines the very U.S. interests the president is charged with protecting in relation to Russia and other American adversaries.
At its most basic level, diplomacy is about employing the tools of statecraft to achieve desirable objectives usually called “national interests” – things that advance the security of the United States and its allies. The national interests of the world’s leading global superpower are numerous and broad, and different interests can and do regularly conflict with one another in any given situation, necessitating hard choices about strategic priorities and unavoidable tradeoffs.
Relationships with other countries, whether allied or hostile, are a means to achieving objectives that advance American interests. Those relationships have no moral content in their own right, only utility toward the realization of larger purposes. A personal friendship with the leader of an adversarial country waging a war of aggression in Europe that has killed 10,000 people to date means little if it fails to influence that country’s behavior in the war.
The United States ultimately has only the most limited influence over whether or not a given country adopts an a priori posture supportive or hostile to core U.S. interests like the integrity of American elections or the prohibition on the seizure of other countries’ land and resources by military force. The specific American national interests at stake in the contested U.S. relationship with Russia are myriad and wide-ranging, and Trump variously mentioned a number of them both before and during his summit with Putin while conspicuously overlooking others.
Trump is partially correct that trust between leaders and good relationships between countries can indeed be a valuable tool for advancing national interests in many instances. But those countries with which trust and good relationships are most likely to serve to advance U.S. interests are also those most likely to be part of the global alliance system that forms the bedrock foundations of American national security strategy and the rules-based, liberal world order that Trump so consistently denigrates in ways that call into question the credibility that allows for U.S. security agreements to serve their intended purposes.
More to the point, Trump claims that good relationships between himself as president and America’s most consistently problematic adversaries can advance U.S. national interests, a proposition that has been true on occasion under different circumstances in the past, but which can by no means be taken as a given at present.
Most attempted major diplomatic openings between longtime adversaries – what is called engagement – have failed most of the time, or at least their success has been limited to narrow areas where stakes are relatively low and disagreement relatively minimal compared to areas of core strategic national interest where disagreements are strong and stakes are high.
If diplomacy was as easy as President Trump seems to assume, dangerous disagreements between the United States and Russia or China or Iran or North Korea would have been resolved long ago. Hard cases persist because they are hard. Actual national interests almost universally matter more than personal relationships in contested bilateral relations between countries.
A personal relationship between leaders can, under certain circumstances, help change one or both leaders’ understanding of his country’s national interests and the threats it faces. But as with the end of the Cold War, such changes require extraordinarily rare leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, who by the time he was meeting one-on-one with Reagan had already proven the credibility of his commitment to undertaking major reforms of the Soviet system and who nonetheless ultimately miscalculated the end results of those reforms and concessions. As Vladimir Putin has now lurched for more than a decade from one provocation and act of aggression to the next, there is quite plainly no justification on President Trump’s part for believing he is such a leader.
President Trump has never explained how engagement with Russia in the present, highly-contentious context advances American national interests beyond what he told Fox News in June when he inexplicably called for Russia’s readmission to the G-7 from which it was ejected over the annexation of Crimea: “If Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me at a table... I could say, ‘Would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Syria?’ ‘Would you do me a favor, would you get out of Ukraine? You shouldn’t be there. Just come on’.” Trump echoed the same after the Helsinki summit, writing “Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well... Big results will come!”
In Trump’s theory of diplomacy, “getting along” with Putin leads to “big results.” And yet there is quite simply nothing in Putin’s background to suggest that he is willing or capable of coming to understand Russia’s national interests in any way other than in direct conflict with those of the United States, and he has proven repeatedly that this is how he sees the world.
Much of Russia’s bad international behavior actually has little to do with the actions of the United States or the broader Western world. To a large degree, Russia’s foreign policy is driven by Putin’s personal domestic political needs to provide symbolic, nationalist wins to his domestic base of supporters in the form of military achievements abroad as a means of distracting from the declining standard of living of most Russian people at home amidst exorbitant elite corruption in Putin’s own government.
President Trump lamented in Helsinki that the U.S. and Russia “should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago… frankly, before I got to office.” Echoing Trump from his matching podium, Putin asserted that there is no basis for the current strained state of relations between the United States and Russia: “those impediments, the current tension, the tense atmosphere, essentially have no solid reason behind it.”
Trump and Putin conveniently ignored that both the Bush II and Obama administrations sought their own diplomatic resets with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Trump’s predecessors, moreover, did so under vastly different conditions, when such efforts made much more sense.
They did so, for instance, before Putin rigged Russia’s 2011 elections; invaded Ukraine; annexed Crimea; shot down the civilian airliner Malaysia Airlines MH17 with nearly 300 international passengers on board; gunned down Russia’s most important democratic opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, just outside the Kremlin; launched a military campaign in partnership with Iran to shore up the murderous Syrian dictatorship; flattened Syrian cities with Russian airpower; attacked an American military base in Syria with Russian mercenaries; deployed chemical weapons in assassinations on British soil; supplied arms and cash to the Taliban to kill American and Afghan soldiers and civilians; carried out attempted coups in Montenegro and Serbia; and launched wide-ranging covert actions and information warfare operations targeting democratic elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and elsewhere across Europe. The list could go on.
Trump has the benefit of knowing all this with hindsight. The current vantage point demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that those earlier aborted diplomatic thaws failed because Putin unfalteringly chose to steer Russia on a course embracing its role as global spoiler to the rules-based world order. Contrary to Putin’s assertion, the reasons for poor relations between the United States and Russia are quite solid.
In seeking to establish his good relationship with Russia without first having secured substantive concessions and credible behavioral changes, President Trump is effectively rewarding all of these past provocations and incentivizing the further use of military aggression and covert action as legitimate policy tools, not only for Russia, but for other adversary governments like China, Iran, and North Korea as well.
Famously ignorant of history and policy, President Trump likely fails to grasp the wider strategic implications of his own improvised diplomacy of “getting along.” To take just one example, consider China’s construction of artificial island military bases in the South China Sea, which amply demonstrates its eagerness to use force in the resolution of its numerous other territorial disputes with neighbors like Taiwan as China rises to global superpower status.
In the current context, establishing a “good relationship” with Russia as American interests around the world remain under attack from an ongoing Russian campaign of hybrid warfare is flatly damaging to U.S. national security interests. Both the Bush II and Obama administrations eventually reverted to strategies aimed at punishing and deterring Russian aggression.
Trump has rightly pointed out that both Bush and Obama’s countermeasures were inadequate to that task. But that inadequacy is an argument for stronger deterrence measures, not for attempting to lift sanctions or for holding summit meetings that provide the Russian autocrat with deeply-desired domestic propaganda victories.
In 2018, there can be no doubt that Putin will continue dangerously pushing the boundaries of the rules-based, liberal world order until he gets punched back in ways that hurt. Vladimir Putin is capable of much worse than the international crimes he has already committed in Syria, Ukraine, and the United States, and all indications suggest it is only a matter of time until the Western world confronts an even graver crisis of his making.
American sanctions imposed over the annexation of Crimea and the 2016 election attacks have started to hit back, but they are not enough. Even as President Trump was rewarding Putin with the spectacle of a summit meeting, Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence was sounding the alarm in congress that “the warning lights are blinking red” on Russian cyber-attacks and information warfare operations targeting this year’s congressional elections in the United States. Now as we learned last Thursday, Vladimir Putin has been invited by President Trump to the White House for yet another state meeting this fall for what we can only assume will be more vague “dialogue with Russia.”
All of this comes as Trump again – astonishingly – calls into question America’s commitment to Article 5 of the founding NATO treaty, which for more than 70 years has served to deter Russian aggression in Europe through collective security assurances that “an armed attack against one... shall be considered an attack against them all.”
Make no mistake: President Trump’s verbal broadsides against U.S. allies and his embrace of U.S. adversaries are dangerous. The consequences may not be immediately evident, but the president’s reckless position on NATO’s collective security obligations ultimately risks confusing both allies and enemies about America’s redlines: Will the United States under Trump and future presidents really honor its security commitments to send Americans to fight and die for small NATO member states on the Russian border like Estonia if Putin decides to invade like he did in Ukraine?
It is decidedly not, as Trump argued again last week, the certainty of America’s security commitments to its allies that increases the risk of war with Russia or other U.S. adversaries; it is the uncertainty that Trump himself has created that does that. In calling these commitments into question, President Trump risks emboldening Putin to take exactly such steps and, in so doing, increases the likelihood of catastrophic miscalculation on the part of the Russian government in ways that risk wider war if and when it turns out the United States will, in fact, send Americans to fight and die for U.S. allies like Estonia. In a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty, that is indefensible.
Rather than advancing American national interests, President Trump’s Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin risks encouraging U.S. adversaries around the world to gamble dangerously and test American resolve. His upcoming White House meeting with the Russian leader does the same. Contrary to Trump’s formulation, good relationships are not an end in and of themselves. Bad relationships with countries like Russia exist because those countries engage in behavior that damages American national security interests. Holding the line against those countries serves to deter and contain still further damage that Trump now risks inviting.
 Philip Rucker, Anton Troianovski and Seung Min Kim, “Trump hands Putin a diplomatic triumph by casting doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies,” Washington Post, July 16, 2018, . For the IC’s conclusions, see Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections (January 6, 2017),
 Andrew Roth and Julian Borger, “Trump and Putin to reveal details of first official summit,” The Guardian, June 27, 2018, ; and John Bolton, “Vladimir Putin looked Trump in the eye and lied to him. We negotiate with Russia at our peril,” The Telegraph, July 10, 2017, .
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 Donald Trump, Twitter, July 16, 2018, .
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